Saturday, 1 August 2009

A visit to Ypres, Belgium. W.E. Boase, Lest We Forget

During the course at INSEAD, I had the opportunity to visit Ypres, in Belgium. The course was in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris. Luckily, one of my new friends, Yves, was heading to the Belgian coast to visit his family, and was passing Ypres on his way. He dropped me off after a 3 hour car journey late on Saturday afternoon, with a promise that he would pick me up late on Sunday afternoon. This would give me roughly 24 hours in Ypres and the surrounding area, which would give me the opportunity to pay respects to my great grandfather, who died there in 1917.
"AIF 28. Boase W.E 6047. September 28th 1917.

Boase came over with me from Australia. He was a widower with 2 children. On the 28th September we went over at Polygon Wood, at dawn. Our objective was Broodseinde ridge. Boase was the first man to reach the ridge. Later the same morning I was about 50 yards from Boase when a shell fell close to him. I saw fragments of his body but there was no time to bury him as the Bosch were counterattacking and the shells were falling all around.

L/C H. Manson 6034. 1 Can. Gen Hp. "

Ypres is a small town that was the centre of a lot of action on the Western front. It formed a 'Salient' - or a natural incursion into the opposition territory because of its geographical features. It is a walled town that sits on an S-shape on a river, which meant that the geography and features made it a place of interest for both sides, and the war raged back and forth with the front line moving to and from Ypres many times.

Today the town of Ypres recognises the fallen soldiers of the First World War with the playing of the Last Post under the Menin Gate - a massive memorial at the edge of town that has over 55,000 names of fallen soldiers who were lost and have no known grave. It was built at the exit to the town that the soldiers passing out of Ypres would use to progress toward the front.

My aim in visiting Ypres was to see the town and the museum, and to hear the Last Post at the Menin Gate, then walk the battlefields to see where William had been killed.

I checked into the hotel first, and then toured the local museum. I walked the short distance to the Menin Gate and spent some time trying to locate William's name. For a while I was worried that it wasnt going to be there, but then on a panel on the stairs, on the left hand outer side of the memorial, I discovered his batallion and his name. This was a powerful experience for me, as I am a strong believer in family, and family history, and I know that I am the only relative from my family to visit in over 90 years.

Memorial Book at the Menin Gate

I walked around town, had a small meal, and returned for the playing of the Last Post. I was surprised by the crowds, and the number of soldiers. A platoon of British soldiers blocked each end of the gate, and a brass band was set up. As it turned out, the Saturday that I chose to vist Ypres was the day that they were also remembering the passing of the oldest survivor of the First World War, Harry Patch ('the last fighting Tommy'). The brass band played, a few speeches were made, wreaths were laid, and then the local fire brigade played the last post. It was very powerful, and very moving.

Early the next morning I took a taxi out to Tyne Cot Cemetery. It is the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in Europe. Apart from all of the headstones, it also contains a memorial wall with another 30,000 name of soldiers lost without identified graves. I was there alone in the early morning. It was going to be a warm day, and I could feel the heat in the sun even at this early hour.

After spending some time at Tyne Cot, I started walking. A short distance away was the first memorial - to the 'road to Paschendale'. I then walked to Broodseinde, where William was killed. Using old WWI battle maps from the days when William was there, I was able to stand on the ridge, and look back to where he went 'over'.

I could see from the maps and the lie of the land the most probable place where William would have died.

Right nearby was a small patch of wild poppies. I picked a couple, to take back to the Menin Gate.

I continued my walk. I walked down the country lanes to Polygon Wood, then back to the Menin Road and back to Ypres via the Menin Gate. This is, in essence, the opposite way that William would have travelled. He was in Ypres and on the front for only one day.

For me it was a 15-20km stroll, in the middle of Summer, through lovely rolling Belgian countryside. For William, it would have been completely different - mud and water. Shell craters, duck boards, trenches and dead bodies. He would have gone over as the sun rose, to bravely take the ridge, and then die for the effort. After this, the Germans pushed the front line back, and the gains were lost. Still, I am proud of what he achieved.

When I arrived back at the Menin Gate, I placed the poppies on the wall next to his name, and spent some time reflecting. It was a powerful visit, and time to say goodbye to William, and the other soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
As planned, Yves picked me up on his way through Ypres, and we had a relaxed trip back to Fontanebleau. This was a trip I had long planned to take, and was very pleased that I could make it happen.

RIP William Boase. Lest We Forget.

1 comment:

Ypres salient said...

Thanks for sharing this post. There were many wars held in the Ypres Salient region which is a famous place in Belgium. The Ypres salient was established by Belgian, French, British as well as Canadian. The area where the battle was held is almost flat with some rises or the small hills. The military grounds in Ypres are of different sizes and a must watch.spring is a best season to visit Ypres.